Science fiction and fantasy
Across The Nightingale Floor
by Lian Hearn
Both Takeo and Shigeru want to take revenge against Iida Sadamu, a brutal warlord who has invaded Otori lands. Iida sleeps surrounded by a nightingale floor which no normal assassin can cross without being heard.
This is also the story of Kaede, a young woman who has spent most of her life as a hostage. After some unfortunate incidents gain her an unlucky reputation, she is promised in marriage like so much property. It's not a union she wants or has any say in, but what can a woman do in a society that gives her so little power?
There's rebellion, political intrigue, and a fair number of assassins and secret factions, so this novel is awash with excitement and unexpected twists. There are instances of shocking cruelty, but even when brutality is perpetrated for the sake of sadism and spreading terror it never got to the point where I didn't believe in the villains. Perhaps that was because whatever happened seemed historically likely.
Women and people of lower social status spend a lot of time bowing and scraping, and there are some extreme notions of honour. The subservience, and people's willingness to die rather than be disgraced, grated on me. But in some ways that's the point. It's a story that emphasises this cultural difference, with a setting that's feudal and patriarchal in the extreme, but the story is told with a modern, western perspective that holds these attitudes up to scrutiny.
This is a fantasy, but the supernatural elements are quite subtle. The oriental background sets this novel apart from most of the usual stereotypes of epic fantasy. However, plot-wise, it isn't that far removed from the standard hero's journey.
I found Across The Nightingale Floor very compelling, and I felt for Takeo and Kaede. Kaede especially is a spirited character, whilst Takeo is gentle and diffident considering what he has to become. The romantic elements are bittersweet. It's quite suspenseful as we wonder whether the main characters will survive to achieve their political ends and gain some freedom, and this tension never drags. In all, I'm glad I ignored my initial response to the way this novel was presented, and that I made time for this book.
1st February 2014
If you like this, try:Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
The first episode in the Farseer series, based in the kingdom of the Six Duchies.
Review © Ros Jackson
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